The politics of California’s gun debate

Gavin Newsom’s first press conference as governor-elect took place on the morning of November 8, 2018, just eleven hours after a gunman opened fire at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks killing 13 people including himself. “The response is not just prayers,” Newsom said. “The response cannot just be more excuses. The response sure as hell cannot be more guns.”

A few days later he doubled down on Twitter, calling the National Rifle Association “a fraudulent organization” and “completely complicit” in the massacre.

No one familiar with Newsom’s career could have been surprised. He was the driving force behind Proposition 63, a 2016 ballot measure that put sweeping new restrictions on ammunition sales and banned high-capacity magazines (like the ones used in Thousand Oaks).

“We’re preparing for the worst,” said Chuck Michel, head of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

Pro-gun arguments once resonated in California. In 1982, a proposition to cap the number of handguns* in California lost by 63 percent of the vote—taking the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Tom Bradley along with it. The reason, according to a Washington Post analysis from the time, was that “people who did not ordinarily bother with politics and politicians were coming out in droves to save their unrestricted right to bear arms.”

But that silent, well-armed majority failed to materialize in 2016 when Prop. 63 passed—also with 63 percent of the vote.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California said that gun laws should be “more strict” than they are now. Included in that group were 49 percent of the conservatives surveyed.

According to Craig DeLuz, the California director of legislative affairs for the Firearms Policy Coalition, those numbers reflect a misconception of what’s already on the books.

“If there are reasonable firearms regulation out there, we’ve already passed that point,” he said. “A lot of people are completely unaware that most of the things that the average voter believes to be ‘reasonable’ are already in place in California.”